Offside, 17 April
England would benefit from losing a few more footballers to Spain or Italy.
After David Beckham’s dressing-room bust-up with Fergie in February 2003, the squeaky-voiced icon was linked with a move to Internazionale. The evidence? His missus Posh, in Milan for a fashion show, reportedly had a meeting with Inter boss Massimo Moratti, and was said to be house-hunting in the city.
Now the word is that Becks is heading for Real Madrid in the summer. How do we know? Firstly, Real’s managing director Jorge Valdano speculated aloud that ‘Beckham looks like the next big project for us’. Then Manchester United’s Spanish goalkeeper Ricardo revealed that Beckham had enquired about the quality of primary schools in Madrid. And two plus two equals a £38million transfer to Real Madrid in the summer.
Is there any substance to these rumours? I have no idea. However, I do think that England would benefit from some of our players gaining experience in Spain or Italy. The Premiership may be the richest league in the world but Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s La Liga are still superior in terms of technique and tactics. Admittedly England is no longer the antediluvian hoof-ball hinterland that it once was but, as Zidane and co demonstrated to devastating effect in their demolition of Manchester United, there is still a gulf in class.
So why is it that so few British footballers are currently playing abroad? Never before have European teams had such a cosmopolitan mix of players, yet the only member of England’s 2002 World Cup squad playing outside the Premiership was Bayern Munich’s Canadian-born midfielder Owen Hargreaves, who has never actually lived in Britain. Today, there isn’t a single British footballer plying his trade in Serie A and only Steve McManaman in the Spanish top flight.
It is tempting to conclude that British footballers are intrinsically bad travellers. They can’t master the lingo and they can’t stomach the local cuisine. During his ill-fated spell at AC Milan, Luther Blissett never came to terms with Italian breakfasts. ‘No matter how much money you’ve got, you can’t buy Rice Krispies’, complained the former Watford striker.
Liverpool legend Ian Rush also endured a miserable spell in Italy. ‘I couldn’t settle in Italy. It was like living in a foreign country’, Rush famously remarked. During transfer talks with Barcelona officials, Sol Campbell reportedly demanded a homesickness leave clause in his contract involving two or three flights back to London every month paid for by the club.
But for every insular Brit who can’t live without his bacon and eggs, there is a Steve McManaman or a Gary Lineker who goes native. ‘Coming to a city like Madrid from Liverpool, it’s such a big and better city’, enthused McManaman. ‘It’s open all night, it’s got a thousand more restaurants, cinemas, a thousand more everything.’ (Really? A thousand more hubcap thieves and crack dealers, too?) (1)
A few eyebrows were raised when Tony Cascarino, a traditional English centre-forward (ie, great big lumbering donkey) albeit with a dodgy Irish passport, landed a transfer to Marseille. But remarkably Cascarino flourished in France: he learnt the language, married a French woman and his goals earned him the rather unlikely sobriquet Tonygol.
One might argue that regular Champions League football means that top English players don’t need to move abroad. To an extent this is true, but there is still a difference between learning how to play against Spanish or Italian clubs, and learning how to play for them. It would mean adapting to a different style of football where there is far more emphasis on tactics. Beckham’s game would surely benefit from having to outwit man-markers every week. Although Becks insists that his hunger hasn’t diminished, the opportunity to prove himself in Spain or Italy would force him to raise his game.
Steve McManaman believes that footballers’ wives are a big part in whether a player moves abroad or not. ‘A lot of the time, kids and wives dictate what you do and where you live’, said McManaman. ‘If the wife doesn’t settle, the player is not happy.’ In Beckham’s case it is Posh who is said to be agitating for a move abroad and, according to popular wisdom, David is under her thumb. Is this true? ‘It’s a nice thumb to be under’, Beckham has admitted. ‘It could be a horrible, nasty thumb but it’s a very beautiful thumb.’ Could it be that Victoria’s thumb helps to bring out the best in David’s feet?
(1) ‘Home is no longer where the heart is for McManaman’, The Times, 21 November 2002
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